The International African American Museum is big and ambitious. It will radically change the area around Liberty Square. It will be filled with creatively designed, accessible exhibits. The only thing not in place yet is the cash — $80 million of it.
If all goes according to plan, the 59,000-square-foot museum will open its doors in 2015. IAAM Director John E. Fleming says that fundraising has been split into two categories, public (seeking $50 million) and private ($30 million). The public money will be sought from government bodies. Since this is an international museum, the search for funds will stretch overseas.
The building is proposed for the corner of Calhoun and Concord Streets, opposite Liberty Square. Three groups are overseeing the early stages of the project — the IAAM Board, an international board, and museum partners. Major players include Mayor Joe Riley; Terrie Rouse, former director of the Philadelphia African American Museum; Richard Rabinowitz of American History Workshop; TV executive Marva Smalls; Elaine Nichols of the South Carolina State Museum; and, in an honorary capacity, former President Bill Clinton.
Their aim is to thread Charleston’s disparate African connections into one central hub. Exhibitions and educational programs will expand the experiences found in our tours, plantations, historic houses, school projects, and other museums. According to Fleming, this rich history made Charleston the optimum city for the IAAM.
“You’ll be able to look out from the museum onto Sullivan’s Island where slave Africans landed,” he says. “Charleston has various marketplaces where slaves were sold, places where African Americans had businesses. They served in some of the big houses along the Battery. And you can cross the river onto rice plantations where a tremendous amount of wealth was created.”
Fleming thinks it will be exciting to learn about the African legacy in the museum, then go out and witness it as directly as possible. “You can really see what history looked like in a physical environment, what someone might have experienced 100 years ago,” he says.
But it hasn’t been easy to squeeze the juiciest parts of Charleston’s historic past into the proposed museum.
Architects Moody Nolan and Antoine Predock have been sent back to the drawing board twice. “Initial designs from the architecture team were much too aggressive for the South,” Fleming says. “They did not speak to the history of the city or the history of the African American community.” In early designs, connecting walkways crossed through the interior, disrupting the sense of free space and light.
After these false starts, Nolan and Predock got closer to the board’s dream museum. It will be split into three theme-driven galleries devoted to the way Africans have affected the rural Lowcountry, South Carolina’s African urban tales, and the way African Americans “defined freedom through their action.” A ribbon of water — either real or suggested — will wind through the space. The imaginative exhibits are being designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates. A theater, a rooftop garden, and learning centers are also planned.
Education is a big mandate for the museum, which will train “youth curators” in career and skill development in collaboration with regional schools and museums. This, along with community exhibits and oral history initiatives, will help bring traffic to the IAAM.
Whether the museum gets all of its desired funding or not, Fleming and his team want a “modern, innovative building.” Rather than sticking with their “stepping into history” idea and going with traditional architecture, the board is looking for a structure that is innovative while still fitting the local landscape. With neighbors like the Hippodrome and the Aquarium, they’re in no danger of “sticking out like a sore thumb,” as the director puts it. While a museum by its very nature is focused on the past, its visage and viewpoint may help visitors look to a positive future.